So it’s done—done to a turn—for the time being, at least. The last-gasp attempt of Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare.
When historians try to rough out explanations for a sequence of events, they experience a constant tug of war between two modes of thinking: the shaping of history through larger social patterns actuated by the actions of thousands or even millions of people; and the consequential acts of individuals who change the course of history. Neither way of thinking is determinative, and good historical explanations depend on both.
But in this final turn of the health care debate, events have fallen out in a way that emphasizes the role an individual can play. Senator John McCain has acted in ways that often seemed contradictory over the past few days. Diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer, he was lionized by the press, cable news and his colleagues as he returned triumphantly to the Senate to make a stirring speech imploring his colleagues to reinstate “regular order,” the traditional Senate procedures that would allow Democrats and Republicans alike to take part in creating a health care compromise. Then he voted in favor of the motion to open debate over the latest Republican bills. Many thought that vote undermined his own high sentiments, because the short amount of debate time and no committee hearings was exactly what Sen. Mitch McConnell wanted, as a means to push through some sort of stealth repeal.
McCain further undercut his own rhetoric when he appeared willing to vote for a “skinny repeal” measure, so long as Rep. Paul Ryan could assure him unconditionally that Republican members of the House conference committee would not actually pass the bill the Senate was about to report out, a bill McCain condemned as slapdash, haphazard and harmful to the public health. If Ryan had acquiesced, McCain seemed ready to give his assent, despite the fact that the members of Congress who conferenced to work out a deal would be only Republicans, trying to cob together something even more slapdash and based also on the House bill, which even Trump had earlier condemned as too “mean” in its provisions. How would that have been a return to comity and compromise?
As it happened, Ryan danced around the demands of McCain, Lindsey Graham and others, issuing reassuring words but guaranteeing nothing. Those honeyed generalities were enough for all the Senate Republicans to walk the plank and vote for their skinny measure, save for Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowsky. Those who went along included Portman, Heller, Capito and others who had for weeks nobly shed crocodile tears about wanting only the best for their constituents.
McCain refused to walk, joining Collins and Murkowski and providing the critical final vote that made the trip to conference a bridge too far. Talk about the effect of a single vote!...though it must be remembered that the strong stands of Collins and Murkowski were equally crucial. In such situations, individuals can by their deeds truly shape history in significant ways. I can’t help suspecting that McCain was able to take that step partly because the news of his cancer freed him from the partisan pressures that McConnell used to corral the rest of his Republican cohort.
All to the good. But neither should historians forget the crucial role that was played by the masses of individuals over the longer arc of health-care reform. As was eloquently noted by Josh Marshall, a guy with training as a historian who now runs Talking Points Memo,
Even now, the fight is not over. And how America’s political parties and Constitutional system emerge from the stresses of the Trump whirlwind—to say nothing of how the health-care system may fare being run by its mortal enemies—these are topics for another day. For now, on at least this one occasion, a few key individuals and the masses conspired to do good.
There are so many ways now to jump into the deep digital flow and experience the multifarious moods of the crowd. Twitter stands prime among them, but there is also Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and others. I frequent the comments sections of various newspapers and blogs, but not too often or for too long. Such surfing can prove numbing after only a short time, not to mention a real time-waster. Now and again, however, I dip in, especially when I want to gauge the range of reactions to a particular article. Sometimes, a snippet floats by that is startling enough to command attention.
In a New York Times OpEd piece on health care reform by David Brooks, the following pungent story from the Crusades was offered up, beginning with a snippet of Brooks’s assessment of current Republican thinking:
For a fuller version of the excerpt, look here. I’m not competent to say whether it's reliable, though others have noted that Usama’s stories “are sometimes obvious jokes, exaggerating their otherness to entertain his Muslim audience." Historian Carole Hillenbrand comments that it would be "dangerously misleading to take the evidence of his book at its face value."
Still, it’s definitely fun to imagine Senator Mitch McConnell calling for a strong knight and a sharp ax …
The Library of Congress
The New York Times has an OpEd piece on Jefferson's view of religion, "Thomas Jefferson's Bible-Teaching." It's by two historians, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, and certainly worth reading. Both are careful scholars and here cautiously present their discussion of Jefferson's views without strongly waving their editorial flag. Even so, one could perceive the flag twitching behind their backs, for clearly they are exhibiting Jefferson's views as a much-needed corrective to the religious fanaticism and partisan wars that still bedevil us today. I agree with much of what they say, so it may seem churlish to object to a surprising blind spot at the center of their argument.
The article reminds us that for much of his career Jefferson was viewed by opponents as a dangerous atheist. "Rumors spread that Jefferson planned to outlaw the Bible. On his watch, [Federalists] said, incest and adultery would run rampant." But Gordon-Reed and Onuf make haste to point out—make haste to reassure us, it could be said—that Jefferson was no atheist, but an admirer of Jesus who only wished to strip away the superstitions that the Bible and its later followers had added. They note that one of Jefferson's intellectual projects led him to go through the New Testament and carefully cut away anything that obscured the actual words and thoughts of Jesus himself. Jefferson didn't publish this unusual editing, a kind of Readers Digest Condensed version of the New Testament, nor did he even share it with his family. But he did view these core beliefs as a model for the way Americans might one day evolve in a republic guaranteeing the freedom of religion.
Clearly Gordon-Reed and Onuf share this broadminded view—and exhibit it as worth emulating. "Far from being an atheist," they say—God forbid one should be an atheist!—"Jefferson was a precocious advocate of what was later called 'civil religion,' the moral foundation of a truly free and united people." They point out that in 1904, Congress was so enamored of this vision of shared religious values that it actually printed 9,000 copies of this "Jefferson Bible," to be distributed to senators and representatives in Congress.
Most devout Christians today “would be appalled by Congress’s action,” say Gordon-Reed and Onuf. But they're not appalled too? In a nation which, thanks in good measure to Jefferson, prides itself on a separation of church and state, what business does Congress have printing any Bible—Jefferson's version, the King James, the Old Testament, or the Koran?
But Gordon-Reed and Onuf seem quite comfortable with the idea that all Americans can join in a version of Christianity that has been Enlightened-up (or is it watered-down?) by the Sage of Monticello. Americans who are non-believers, atheists, secular humanists, are left out of the equation. Yes, the Constitution prevents religious "tests for office," they say, but they find it hard to imagine "how a candidate who professed to have no religious beliefs could find favor." This doesn't seem to bother them. Their essay ends with a paean to "Jefferson’s idealistic vision of American civil religion, the shared faith of a free people," which in a world full of religious bigotry, seems "all the more attractive."
In the nineteenth or twentieth century, the view of all Americans united under a religious standard might still pass for a spacious ecumenism. But in the twenty-first century, when increasing numbers of citizens matter-of-factly and even proudly embrace a secular moral standard, the notion seems more specious than spacious. The solution is to let believers and nonbelievers alike affirm their theologies and philosophies as they choose, separate from the embrace of the government, not to try to unite everyone under the umbrella of a vague "civil religion."
On this matter, I prefer the Eisenhower Doctrine of church and state to Jefferson’s, even if Ike didn't recognize the unintentional humor in his words: "Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors